After about a year and a half on the job, Joe Ortiz has decided to retire as chief of the South Pasadena Police Department.
The decision, which was announced last week, creates the third significant administrative vacancy in City Hall this fiscal year and will provide a City Council of mostly new faces an early opportunity to make a statement of hire in 2021. Deputy Chief Brian Solinsky will again serve as the interim police chief, after holding the same role prior to the city hiring Ortiz in 2019.
Although Ortiz’s retirement will be effective March 1, according to a city press release, he is now on paid administrative leave “to effectuate” the transfer of power to Solinsky, who has been with SPPD for 27 years.
Ortiz joined SPPD in April 2019, after being chief of the Sierra Madre Police Department, following an eight-month search to replace former Chief Art Miller.
“I wish to congratulate Chief Ortiz on his more than 27 years in municipal law enforcement in the cities of Glendora, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena,” interim City Manager Sean Joyce said in a prepared statement. “I especially thank Chief Ortiz for his service to his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.”
Ortiz’s departure comes in the wake of mounting public pressure for SPPD to live up to its reputation of community policing as the nation continues to reckon with a broader law enforcement culture that activists paint as structurally prejudiced and aggressive. SPPD, like many other departments, suspended its use of the carotid hold earlier this year following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis; Ortiz also condemned the manner in which Floyd was arrested, which involved an officer kneeling on his back and neck for nearly 9 minutes.
As the city has convened a commission to analyze possible reforms to SPPD policies and actions, the department and Ortiz have continued to come under fire for a variety of public incidents since the June protests over Floyd’s death, many involving the Black Lives Matter protests in town.
Some members of the community have criticized the manner in which a Black man was arrested through use of a spit shield and also what was described as a lackadaisical response in an incident where a bicyclist spit on and threw rocks at BLM protesters. More recently, criticism has mounted at City Council meetings over the department’s handling of a local man who drove his truck onto the sidewalk at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Mission Street to confront BLM activists, and also numerous incidents that reportedly occurred at a march in support of President Donald Trump on the eve of the election this month.
In both cases, officers released potential suspects in the field without arrest, pending review of the cases by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Ortiz later cited the significant amount of conflicting witness evidence as a factor in these decisions.
Conversely, Ortiz and the department also publicly condemned a series of vandalism crimes against residents with BLM regalia at their homes this summer, in which nails were strewn along the homes’ driveways.
There also was public outcry recently when Ortiz accepted an invitation to host a prayer event by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, an invitation he later rescinded following the response. That group is known for its anti-LGBTQ stances among other socially conservative views, which many South Pasadena residents decried as being counter to the city’s values.
Ortiz explained he accepted the invitation without researching the group’s background and at the face value of a good faith prayer event.
The department also continues to face criticism for its response in the shooting death of resident Vanessa Marquez during a mental health crisis call in 2018. Investigations by the D.A.’s Office and by SPPD cleared officers’ actions in the incident, which preceded Ortiz’s career here by a year, but local activists nevertheless cite the event and its later interpretation by officials as a blemish indicative of the need for reform.
In addition to Ortiz, the city is also contending with the departure of its city manager and its finance director this year. Once the new City Council is sworn in, it will have to work out how to frame these hires to achieve stability in City Hall, an issue that vocal residents have magnified throughout the year as claims of fiscal and managerial impropriety had dogged the prior administration.